Women of Courage: Ching Shih, Pirate Queen

Chinese junk
Chinese junk


The year is 1796. The place: a floating brothel in the South China Sea. A beautiful prostitute is kidnapped by order of the notorious pirate leader Zheng Yi. He demands that she marry him. She agrees, but with conditions.

Her terms? A fifty percent split of his booty and the right to lead the fleet at his side.

Though her true name is lost to history, we know her as Ching Shih (literally ‘widow of Zheng’), and she was arguably the most powerful pirate in history.

Rise to Power

Pirate ships in South China Sea

After Zheng agreed to her terms, the pair took the Red Flag Fleet from 200 ships to 600, uniting rival pirate bands in the process. Zheng played the bold, brash leader, while Ching was the calculating strategist. Their power grew as they looted and blackmailed over an ever-expanding region.

Zheng died in a typhoon in 1807, leaving her with a tenuous grip on power. She acted quickly, wooing Zheng’s second in command Chang Pao. He readily agreed to marry her and she agreed to continue to co-captain the fleet. From there, her influence only continued to grow.

Under Her Leadership

“Under the leadership of a man you have all chosen to flee. We shall see how you prove yourselves under the hand of a woman.”

A consummate business woman and excellent military strategist, she controlled a vast network of pirates, farmers, spies across the whole of the South China Sea. Ships, boats, and coastal villages from Macau to Canton were required to pay her tribute. At the height of her power, she commanded more than 1,800 ships. An estimated 80,000 men, women, and children were part of her well-run syndicate. In comparison, the notorious Blackbeard had four ships and 300 pirates.

She governed with a strict code of bylaws and most infractions were cause for execution, including the rape of captives. Which is not to say that a pirate could not take a beautiful captive as his own. He only had to agree to marry her and be faithful. Promiscuity was cause for execution.

Known as the “Terror of South China”, the Chinese, Portuguese, and British navies were unable to defeat her. Her conquer of the Chinese navy was so complete, one epic battle even resulted in the sailors surrendering to enlist in her fleet.

A Most Audacious Retirement Plan

credit: Takoya Fischer as Ching (based on Cheng Shih) in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Source

As you can imagine, the Chinese government was none to happy about the power the Red Flag Fleet wielded over the region and in 1810 the emperor amplified efforts to stop the outlaws.

With her keen instincts, perhaps Ching Shih realized her time was up.

She walked unarmed into the governor’s office and negotiated a surrender which included full amnesty for her and most of her fleet. Astoundingly, they all were able to keep any plunder they amassed.

Eventually, Ching retired to Guandong, where she ran a notorious gambling house and brothel. She died at the age of 69 with her family by her side.

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Originally published on KarenLeeRawson.com.

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